Three to Ride
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Rachel Swift is a woman on the run.
A stalker sent Rachel's world reeling. Now she's running for her life, and Bliss, CO, seems like the perfect place to hide. Bliss is a strange little town, filled with artists, nudists, and the occasional conspiracy nut. It's a good place to start over.
Max and Rye are just the men to catch her.
Horse trainer Max and Sheriff Rye gave up on their dream of finding one perfect woman to share long ago. Rachel walks in, and they're both in love and fighting their true natures.
A town like no other….
When Rachel's past catches up with her, all of Bliss is in danger. Rachel knows she should run, but how can she leave behind the love she's found with Max and Rye and the home she's built in Bliss? With her whole town behind her, Rachel is ready to make her stand. It's time for her to get back in the saddle and ride.
Release date: March 20, 2018
Publisher: DLZ Entertainment, LLC
Print pages: 257
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Three to Ride
The rain beat endlessly against the windowpane as Elizabeth Courtney stared out the hospital window. There was gray as far as the eye could see. Gray sky. Gray buildings. Gray streets. She knew the sheets on her hospital bed were white, but somehow all she could see was gray.
How long had it been since the damn sun had shone?
“So you claim the perpetrator is a man you had one date with?”
The cop’s voice brought her out of her thoughts, reminded her that there was worse to come. So much worse.
“I’ve filed reports,” she explained. “At least ten.”
He frowned, looking down at his tablet. “I could only find three.”
The fact that they’d sent an officer and not a detective let her know how seriously they were taking her. “I’ve filed ten complaints. I guess your office decided they weren’t worth taking seriously.”
The officer’s jaw tightened, his face flushing slightly. “I assure you, we take all of this seriously, ma’am. But your townhouse was old and we find that faulty wiring is often to blame for fires. We can’t go and arrest some man you don’t like without evidence.”
Some man she didn’t like. Yes, they were serious about this. “Tommy Lane did this. It wasn’t faulty wiring. It wasn’t an accident. He did this to punish me, and you’ll let him get away with it because he’s a cop.”
Now a hard look came into the officer’s eyes. “I assure you that if we find cause, we will make an arrest. And in the meantime, I’ll try to find the files. They’re likely stuffed in a box somewhere. If you’ve filed against him ten times, I’m sure we can do something. We should be able to provide you with some kind of protection.”
“For how long?” she asked, knowing the answer wouldn’t be to her liking.
The male officer shifted from foot to foot and scratched at the hair under his black cap. “For as long as you need it.”
“I doubt that.” It would be for as long as they had the budget for it, if that.
Tommy had friends on the force. Lots of them. Just because he’d turned out to be a complete psycho freak didn’t mean they would desert him. Cops tended to stick together. She’d already gotten a phone call from Tommy’s old partner threatening her if she didn’t drop the case against him. Of course, at the time, her case had been stalking. She could now add arson and attempted murder to the list. God, how could one date have gone so wrong?
“He won’t stop coming after me.” She wasn’t sure who she was talking to now. It wasn’t like the officer was truly listening. “I offended him and he won’t stop until he’s satisfied I’ve paid.”
“And all of this was because you wouldn’t accept a second date with him?” The cop seemed genuinely stumped. “Because most men would move on.”
“Lucky me. He’s not most men.” Tommy didn’t give up. He kept coming no matter what she did.
“Look, ma’am, I’m not trying to be a jerk. But it’s difficult for me to see a fellow officer doing something like this. We have psych evaluations.”
“And those aren’t always right,” she shot back. She’d heard this before, too.
The young officer sighed as though unsure how to proceed. “Like I said, we’re here to protect you if you need it.”
But he would be the one to decide if she needed it, and he’d spent the last hour and a half asking her questions like “had she been depressed lately” and “did she have a therapist.”
They would decide she was a hysterical female and she would be left alone with no protection. She had no money, no home, no family. She would be forced to stay in some cheap motel, and that was where they would find her body.
The rest of her life played out like a bad noir.
“She’ll be in the hospital for at least another forty-eight hours,” the doctor said to the police officer as he strode into the room.
Pure gratitude flooded her system. The doctor’s intervention gave her a moment to quell the panic threatening to overtake her. Though his words gave her pause. Not an hour before, Dr. Smith had told her she could leave tonight. He looked so serious that she kept her mouth closed.
The officer nodded and flipped the notebook he was holding shut. She bet he was happy to be able to put off the problem for another couple of days. “All right, then. I’ll be back tomorrow to discuss how we can protect you, Miss Courtney. You’re in a secure wing of the hospital for now. Don’t worry about a thing. You should concentrate on feeling better.”
He strode out of the room, the door closing with a decisive click behind him.
It took everything she had not to throw something as the officer walked out the door. Don’t worry? Her home burned down and she wasn’t supposed to worry?
This was what she would get from the authorities. She had to hope and pray that Tommy had left something behind. Some clue that they couldn’t turn a blind eye to.
“Are you all right?” The doctor sighed. “That was a stupid question. I should ask, did the police give you any of the answers you were looking for?”
She merely shook her head.
The doctor turned. “The nurses said something about a stalker.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Oh, I believe a lot. I was a trauma surgeon most of my life. Can’t operate anymore because of a weakness in my hand, but that doesn’t mean I can’t help save lives, still. I’ve seen the worst of the worst. Lay it on me.”
“I don’t even know how to tell the story. It was one date.”
It had been a blind date set up by a friend of a friend. Tommy Lane had set off a few red flags, and Liz had politely declined his offer for a second date. That should have been the end of it. But one year’s worth of creepy phone calls, letters to her boss, and vandalism had finally led to him torching her small townhouse. She had lost everything. It was good to know the police didn’t want her to worry.
Liz looked over at the doctor. He was a nice-looking man in his mid-thirties. He’d been kind to her. Everyone in the hospital had gone out of their way to make her feel safe. “Why did you lie to the cop? Is there something else wrong with me?”
Dr. Smith took a deep breath. “You’re fine. I lied to give you choices. I lied because I don’t want anyone to know where you’re going if you decide to go.”
The door to her room opened, and one of the night nurses walked in. Liz remembered her name was Sandy. She must have changed shifts because it was still light outside. She carried a duffel bag in one hand.
“Everything’s ready,” Sandy said to the doctor.
“Good.” The doctor rubbed his hands together and nodded. He turned to Liz, and there was a wealth of sympathy in his eyes. “I’ll leave you in Sandy’s capable hands. I wish you the best of luck, Ms. Courtney. My card is in that bag. If you need anything, please call me.”
Liz watched the doctor exit the room before turning her attention to the nurse. Sandy was an older woman. She looked to be in her mid-fifties and radiated an air of confidence that came with extreme professionalism. She was brisk and efficient, but now she smiled kindly. “You don’t have any family, do you?”
Liz shook her head. Her father had died of cancer ten years ago and her mother in a car accident three years later. She only had an elderly aunt in San Diego. She adored her Aunt Sadie, but she couldn’t exactly count on her for protection. Liz had been on her own for a long time, but never before had she felt so isolated and alone. Tommy had done that to her. In the last year, he’d managed to drive off every friend she had.
“I lost my daughter,” Sandy said, tears welling as though the loss happened yesterday. “It was ten years ago.”
“I’m sorry.” She murmured all the words she knew she should say. She couldn’t imagine how awful it was to lose a child. Losing her parents had been hard enough. Still, her mind was focused on one problem and one problem alone. How was she going to survive when he was still out there?
“Her ex-boyfriend walked into the place she worked and shot her three times in the heart,” Sandy explained matter-of-factly. “She’d done all the right things. She got restraining orders, called the cops on him. It didn’t matter.”
Sandy’s daughter had done all the things Liz had done, and she’d still died at the hands of her stalker. Liz felt her whole body tremble. She had nowhere to go. Tommy was incredibly savvy when it came to tracking a person. He could track her with her credit cards or trace her through her cell phone. Once he had traced her to a bar where she’d gone to enjoy happy hour with some work friends. He’d shown up and accused her of cheating. She’d been humiliated in front of her boss, who had promised he didn’t think less of her, but had still let her go when her temp contract had come up. Tommy had left numerous voice mails with the men she tried to date, detailing a relationship that didn’t exist. It had proven to her that he was completely insane. She’d been shocked to learn he’d been tracking the license plate on her car as she drove through intersections with cameras. Anywhere she went, he would find her.
Sandy shook her head as though trying to pull herself back into the present. “If she was alive today, I’d tell her to do the one thing I’m telling you to do.”
“What?” Liz’s tears were falling freely now.
“Run, sweetie.” Sandy reached out and took her hands. “You gotta run. Until they have enough evidence to put him in jail, you aren’t safe. He’ll come after you again. The nurses took up a collection. There’s five thousand dollars in that bag. It’s not much, but it’s a start. I have a friend who helps out in situations like this. He made you three new driver’s licenses and passports. They’ll pass the tests. There are social security cards, too. It’s everything you need to start a new life. I know it’s not fair to you, but I think it’s the smartest thing for you to do.”
Liz looked down at the duffel bag and then back up at Sandy. If she had a new identity, maybe he wouldn’t be able to find her. The idea of fairness didn’t even register. Nothing about her life had been fair since that maniac had crashed into it.
But this…this could give her a chance. He wouldn’t know what car to watch for or what name to track on her credit cards. She could start over and leave this nightmare behind.
Something like hope started to bloom inside her. “Why are you doing this for me?”
Sandy’s face was lined with heartache. “I do this for a lot of girls, more than I care to think of. I do this because I wish someone had done it for my daughter.”
Two hours later, Liz sat in the front seat of a beat-up sedan. There was a black wig covering her golden-brown hair. She had instructions to dye her hair at the earliest opportunity. There was a box of L’Oréal in her bag. Liz smiled slightly as she thought about it. She’d always wanted to try blonde.
“I have a blog. Here’s the web address.” Sandy pressed a piece of paper in her hand. “Check it every week if you can. I’ll post information there when I get some. I’ll let you know if it’s safe to come home, okay?”
She nodded, her heart filled with gratitude. These people had given her everything. The doctor had bought this car and then made sure the plates couldn’t be traced back to any of them. The day shift nurses had purchased clothes for her. What they had really bought her was a chance at survival. “How can I ever thank you?”
Sandy’s smile was watery. “You thank me by living a good life, sweetheart. You go out there and you find your heart’s desire. Don’t you let him win. Fall in love and have a bunch of kids and live a beautiful life. You hear me?”
She nodded, unable to stop her own tears. She started the car and waved at the woman who’d given her this completely new life. It was scary. She looked at the entrance to the garage. There was a brilliant light at the end of the tunnel. It led to Amanda Cooper. She was Mandy Cooper now. She had to figure out who that was. Despite the horror of the past year, there was a little excitement in her stomach, like tiny butterflies that were excited at the prospects opening up to her.
Mandy Cooper drove toward that light, already shedding the vestiges of her old life. She would take the good stuff, her parents’ love and the lessons she’d learned, with her. She would toss away everything else. She didn’t need it. When she drove into the heat of the Dallas afternoon, she turned her face to the light.
The warmth of the sun felt like a benediction on her skin.
She pointed the car toward the highway and didn’t look back.
* * * *
Sheriff Ryan Harper sat on the porch watching Nina pack up her cute convertible. His dog, Quigley, lay at his feet, a tennis ball in his mouth, patiently waiting for someone to toss the nasty old thing. Rye wasn’t in the mood to play. If he was half the gentleman his momma had raised him to be, he would get off his butt and help Nina. He tipped back his bottle of beer and watched her. He should have known it wouldn’t work.
“You’re a bastard, you know.” Nina’s pretty face was flushed with exertion. She shoved her platinum blonde hair out of her eyes.
Rye shrugged, his Stetson low on his forehead. The heat of the Colorado summer was starting to make him sweat. He knew he should get out of his sheriff’s uniform when he was drinking, but he couldn’t work up the will to care. “I’m not the one running out on my wedding.”
His wedding. He was getting married in a week. No. He was supposed to have been getting married in a week, but his bride was running.
Nina sighed. Her shoulders slumped, and she seemed to get smaller. “I’m sorry, Rye. I got a better offer. You know how that goes.”
Rye huffed. “Yeah, someone with more money comes along, and you run off chasing him. Don’t think you can come back here when it goes bad for you in Denver.”
Nina flashed him a superior smile and was right back to being her arrogant self. “I’m never coming back here. I’m going to be a rich man’s wife.” She leaned against her trunk, seemingly more comfortable now. “Look, Rye, don’t take it too bad. You know I care about you. I just care about me more.”
In the distance, a truck pulled up the long drive. Quigley’s tail began to thump. “Didn’t you want to be gone before Max got home?”
Nina’s brow wrinkled as she took in the sight of that Ford coming up the dirt road. “Damn it, I told you not to call him.”
She worked overtime, shoving suitcases into the car. He sure hoped the next idiot had a large closet because Nina did not skimp on the clothes.
“I didn’t,” Rye said calmly. He knew something Nina didn’t know. Max wouldn’t care that she was leaving. Hell, Max would likely be thrilled. But Rye appreciated Nina’s fear too much to tell her differently. It was the only revenge he was going to get. “Big Brother has impeccable timing. He always has.”
Nina was trying to get the trunk closed when Maxwell Harper slid out of his old Ford truck. Quigley popped up, drooling around the tennis ball, and ran to his master. That old dog knew what Nina didn’t. Max had always liked animals more than humans. Max didn’t miss a beat. He pulled the ball out of the dog’s mouth and threw it as far as he could. Quigley ran off, happy to have found a playmate. Max’s eyes slid from his younger brother to the blonde and back again. “The wedding’s off, then?”
“Thank god.” Max didn’t even attempt to hide his relief. He smiled broadly. He wore blue jeans and a neatly pressed shirt. It was what he wore when meeting with clients. Rye took note of the paperwork sticking out of his small laptop bag. At least someone had scored. “And someone wanted me to buy a tux. Who’s happy I rented now?”
“Asshole,” Nina spat, looking at the older of the two brothers. “I can’t believe I wasted my time on you two. You know what, Ryan Harper? I’m going to give you a piece of advice. If you ever want to get married, you better dump Max. It’s fine for a night, or even a couple of months of sex, but no woman is going to put up with his shit. You’re going to be alone for the rest of your life if you insist on this perverted lifestyle.”
“You didn’t think it was perverted last night,” Rye replied. Last night she’d seemed pretty damn happy between them. Max had never thought Nina was the one for them, but he hadn’t minded fucking her.
“Oh, I thought it was perverted,” Nina corrected him. “But I liked it anyway. As a fantasy goes, the whole twin thing is pretty hot. I certainly can’t do it for the rest of my life. Do you know much laundry you two create? What you two want, no woman is going to give you. That’s my advice. Oh, and get the hell out of this weird little town. I sure as hell am. Bye.” She twirled around, her shorts hugging her luscious ass.
In a moment, the dust was flying as she drove out of their lives. Rye found himself strangely unmoved by her defection.
“You okay?” Max sank down into the chair beside Rye. He set his bag on the porch and started rocking. It didn’t escape Rye’s notice that there was a third rocker that sat empty. He’d bought it a couple of years back, hoping that they would find a woman to sit with them. Nina hadn’t been one to sit and enjoy the sunset while rocking on the porch. She was more a “sit in the house and complain about the cable” kind of woman.
What had he been thinking?
Rye shrugged. He wasn’t okay, but that had less to do with Nina than he liked to admit. “I didn’t love her. I suppose I wanted to start my life. I wanted to get married, have some kids, and start, I guess.”
It had begun to feel like he was in limbo. He had recently turned thirty, and the only marriage prospect he’d had in years was driving off to Denver.
Max got quiet. “She’s probably right, you know. You would do a lot better without me.”
“It’s not your fault she left.” Rye believed it. Max might be surly at times, but he was a genuinely nice guy. Well, he was a genuine guy at the very least.
“I think it’s time we tried something different,” Max said thoughtfully. “You should try dating on your own. I want out for a while. I just want to be alone. I’m not cut out for the long-term thing.”
Rye turned to his twin. “How can you say that?”
Max smiled sadly. Quigley returned with the ball. His massive paws rested on Max’s feet. He plopped the dripping ball on Max’s lap, and Max quickly began the process all over again.
“I can say that because I’m thirty years old, and I’ve never been in love. I guess I’m never going to be. It’s all right. I’ve got my work. That’s enough.”
Rye sighed and cursed the day he met Nina. Now Max was going to brood. The last time a long-term girl walked out, Max brooded for two years. Max had retreated, and Rye had been left to date on his own. He knew Max didn’t love Nina, but rejection was rejection, and his brother took it hard.
“We’ll see what happens.” Rye was the younger twin, but he took the lead when it came to things like this. He wasn’t willing to give up. He popped open another beer and scratched his chest. “What do you think she meant when she called this a weird town?”
Max yawned. “I have no idea. It’s a great town. It’s nice and quiet, except when the Farley boys try to launch those rockets of theirs.”
“Don’t forget the Wiccans chanting. That can get loud.” Woo Woo Fest was coming up in a couple of months. He hated Woo Woo Fest.
“They only do that a couple of times a year. It’s the live-action role-playing that I take exception to,” Max said with a frown. “Those kids scare my horses. Other than that, we’re perfectly normal.”
Rye decided not to bring up the nudist colony on the outskirts of town or mention the performance art done in the square every Friday at noon. He smiled to himself. Bliss, Colorado, was a weird town, and he liked it that way.
And one day some gorgeous, open-minded woman was going to come through Bliss and like it, too.
He couldn’t wait for that day.
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